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A Small Town Embraces a Traditional Pageant In Newport, Gowns, Chainsaws and a Rite of Passage for a Community’s Young Women

Saturday, February 16, 2013
Stepping onto the Newport Opera House stage before a packed house Saturday night, a young woman in a flannel shirt carried a chainsaw and beamed from ear to ear. Katie Marsh, one of 11 contestants in the 2013 Newport Winter Carnival Pageant, was out of an evening gown and back in her element.

“Well, good evening everyone. My name is Katie. I’m going to teach you a little about chainsaws,’’ she began. In the pageant, which dates back nearly 100 years, having a contestant rattle off the parts of a chainsaw was a first. Recognizing that her talents aren’t in such things as tap dancing or singing, Marsh decided to show why she’s earned the nickname “Chainsaw Queen.”

She walked the crowd in the opera house’s handsome wood auditorium through chainsaw safety, demonstrated how to use the device, donated by her sponsor, Fleury’s Small Engine Repair (“Thank you, Fleury’s!”), and reminded them of crucial safety gear: a hard hat, ear muffs, shield and chaps, “so you always look stylin’.” She capped it off with a video of her in a chainsaw contest, in which she sawed three slices off a log in 13 seconds.

As she exited the stage to thunderous applause, Marsh was smiling even more than when she came onstage, having won them over by showing them what she was made of.

“Wooh! Women power!” yelled out one woman in the audience.

An evening in which contestants perform a choreographed dance to Viva Las Vegas in sparkling shell tops and black leggings, and parade around the stage in floor-length gowns, may not seem a likely venue for a young woman to demonstrate mastery of machinery. But for the most part, it is not the pageant’s glitz that makes it the signature event in the town’s social calendar.

By and large, people from Newport and surrounding towns crowd into the opera house each February to admire the talents shown by juniors and seniors from Newport High School. On some level, each audience member becomes a proud parent as they see them tap dance, play the saxophone or disassemble a chainsaw before the entire town, watching them come into their own.

“We all want to see our kids prosper and do good things,” said Sam McNeel, a Newport resident and spectator at this year’s pageant. “We follow them from the time they’re kids until the time they graduate. They’re really, really talented, and it’s amazing.”

Even with the traditional pageant elements of evening gown, talent and interview competitions and a dapper, tuxedoed emcee (this year, Newport resident Dan Cherry), the affair lacks the cutthroat competition and polished sheen of some pageants. Nor is it likely that the town would embrace such an affair.

“Everybody knows one another in this town,” said Seraphim D’Andrea, who served as one of the judges and choreographed the opening number. “You can’t get up there and say some(thing) lame, ‘I want to do this with my life,’ when we know that’s not who you are. I mean, everyone wants world peace, but let’s be genuine.”

A Long History

Founded in 1916, the Newport Winter Carnival held its first queens pageant nine years later, when Anne Kennedy won the title, according to Jayna Huot Hooper’s book Celebrating Community: Newport New Hampshire 1761-2011. The pageant took a decade-plus hiatus before re-emerging in 1938, and a queen has been crowned every year since. These days, each queen is accompanied by a prince and princess in the second grade, who get their chance to shine in a Kids Say the Darndest Things-style question-and-answer session with the emcee.

Even as beauty pageants declined in popularity in the wake of the Civil Rights and women’s liberation movements — witness the eroding audience for the Miss America pageant in the last three decades — some small-town pageants have survived, including the Apple Blossom Cotillion, held each May in Springfield, Vt., and the queen pageant at the Cornish Fair.

Being named the queen of the Newport Winter Carnival or the Cornish Fair is mostly an honorary title, yet it can be a transformative experience for young women who don’t live in big cities, said Monica Rastallis Cashin, a New London resident and 1979 Winter Carnival Queen who went on to become Miss New Hampshire.

“If you grow up in a small town … there aren’t that many opportunities to really build confidence and to learn how to put your best foot forward all the time,” Cashin said. “And that’s one good thing that pageants do.”

If the idea of beauty pageants inspires derision in some circles, the contestants in Newport’s pageant see the benefits of the more traditional aspects of the competition. The interview with the judges forces them to overcome a fear of public speaking, and the evening gown competition teaches poise.

“I feel like actually, it’s a good thing that it’s old-fashioned,” said Kira Bailey of Newport. “We took an etiquette class. I never would have done that before.”

By her own admission, Marsh is “not really your average pageant girl.” Growing up on a dirt road in Croydon, she was drawn to hunting, fishing and being in the woods. She’s one of the few young women enrolled in the natural resources and forestry program at Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center, and has earned her classmates’ respect by excelling in the traditionally male-dominated field.

Marsh didn’t need to prove anything by joining the pageant, but thought it would be good to do something different before she heads to college to become a fish and game officer.

“I’m more in it for the experience you can get out of it,” she said at a rehearsal a few days before the pageant.

“I understand that it’s a competition. We all, somewhere inside of us, want to win. And I have to admit, I want to win, too. But I’m really in it for what I can get out of it. There’s just so much you can learn from each other, and from the people who are helping you.”

The responsibilities associated with being the Winter Carnival Queen are few. She’s expected to ride in a float in the carnival parade, and return to the following year’s pageant to crown her successor. Yet many of the queens, as the contestants collectively refer to themselves, feel they have another obligation to fulfill, which is to serve as a role model for the younger children in town.

A former mill town in the state’s second-poorest county, Newport has seen its fortunes decline in recent decades with the loss of its manufacturing base, and Newport High has one of the state’s highest dropout rates. For young children, seeing the queens carry themselves with poise “really gives them a good outlook,” said contestant Marion Raymond, a singer-songwriter and aspiring mathematical physicist. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad influences in the area. ... I want to participate and be a good influence so they have something else to look up to.”

Too Much Winter

A snowstorm would in most cases be a plus for a winter carnival, yet last week’s storm brought the 97th Newport Winter Carnival to a standstill for a day, and delayed the pageant by a night. But it was not enough to decrease the crowd at the pageant, which sold days in advance.

The first to perform, Makayla Merritt, quickly overcame her nerves and tapped her way across the stage to the tune of Rockin’ Robin. Marsh worked her chainsaw magic. Courtney Dow, a cheerleader for the Newport Tigers, upped the ante with her cheer routine, complete with back flips. Bailey serenaded the audience on saxophone with her rendition of the Pink Panther theme. Marion Raymond, meanwhile, gracefully sang and played an original song on the piano, and didn’t get flustered when her microphone cut out while she responded to an onstage question.

Appreciation for small town life was a common theme. Contestants Caitlin Jones and Morgan Kuhns created slideshow of common scenes around town, while Kaylee Lawrence belted out the Deana Carter song Strawberry Wine, accompanied by a video with images of her hanging around a covered bridge, beside a river, and relaxing in a field. Mindy Carl, meanwhile, dedicated the sentimental ballad The Best Day by Taylor Swift to her mother and her recently deceased aunt.

The consensus around town is that a contestant who wins two or more of the major awards will often become the carnival queen. As the contestants gathered onstage at the end of the night, a pattern began to develop when Marion Raymond was given the Lisa Gauvin Award, given to the entrant who has overcome a significant challenge in her life. Talent award? Marion Raymond. Miss Congeniality? Raymond again.

“And now our third runner-up,” Cherry announced. “Our third runner up this evening goes to Melinda Carl. Second runner-up this evening goes to Miss Courtney Dow.”

Then came the shocker. “Our first runner-up this evening goes to … Miss Marion Raymond!” The eyes of the audience darted around the stage, trying to place the winner.

“And our 2013 Newport Winter Carnival Queen is … Miss Kira Bailey!”

Bailey’s hands rose to her gaping mouth as her shoulders were draped in a red cape, a tiara was placed on her head, and the audience swarmed the stage to greet her and the entire court.

“I’m still in shock,” she said moments later. “I feel this huge thing on my head, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I won!’ ” Bailey was as gracious in victory as her fellow queens were in defeat, exchanging hugs and kind words.

“I feel more than validated,” Raymond said after congratulating Bailey. “I didn’t expect anything. It was really nice, because it showed a lot of the work I did paid off.”

Slowly, the audience began to file out of the opera house and into the cold, slushy night. But the queens lingered on the opera house stage, soaking in the stage lights and the last moments of glory on a small- town stage.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

On some level, each audience member becomes a proud parent as he or she sees the contestants tap dance, play the saxophone or disassemble a chainsaw before the entire town,watching them come into their own.

Valley News Photographs —Libby March

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